'Lost City of Z' is fertile new territory for a master filmmaker

Charlie Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, an English explorer of the Amazon jungle.

Charlie Hunnam stars as Percy Fawcett, an English explorer of the Amazon jungle. Aidan Monaghan / Amazon Studios & Bleecker Street

It’s sometimes said of the current age that we’re too old to explore Earth and too young to explore space.

We’ve been to Machu Picchu and the moon, but what of those worlds we’ve dreamed about but will never know?

James Gray returns to a time when maps still had blank spaces in The Lost City of Z, an account of Percy Fawcett’s life based on David Grann’s book about the British explorer. This kind of material is uncharted territory for the gifted writer/director, who takes to it like an intrepid captain setting out for the new world.

His days of Anarchy now behind him, Charlie Hunnam here represents a particularly British form of order in the leading role: the soldier-turned-explorer circa the early 1900s. Fawcett is tasked with traveling from England to Bolivia on a mapping mission, a quest he’s aided in by a small team of fellow countrymen led by Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, bearded and never better), a few locals, and his own wherewithal.

Amazonia may be untouched by the king’s majesty, but that’s only more cause for the thin red line separating civilization and savagery to bring it into the 20th century.

No one ever goes downriver in the movies without both losing and finding some part of himself, and so it is here. Fawcett finds something else as well: traces of an ancient city among the trees, snakes, and piranha.

Gray’s previous films, like the masterful We Own the Night and The Immigrant, have all taken place on a much smaller scale in New York City. Gray is often called a classicist, a label that’s reductive but also accurate enough. Here, in a story that finds its hero traveling back and forth between Europe and South America, he’s made a film that feels like a relic of a bygone era — as well as a small treasure.

Few back in England are convinced that Fawcett has found anything at all. To believe in this supposed city, which he calls Z, is to believe that civilized society predates England. This is its own kind of blasphemy.

As with any explorer worth his salt, the film’s reach occasionally exceeds its grasp. Taking place over decades, The Lost City of Z isn’t a deep dive into any one place or time so much as its hero’s increasingly obsessed mind. When he returns from World War I wounded and temporarily sightless, Fawcett at first seems fine. It’s only when he’s incorrectly told that he’ll never be able to return to Amazonia that he begins to weep. His wife and children, none of whom he’s seen in years, are all at his side.

“Your soul will never be quiet until you find this new place,” a mystic had said to Fawcett during his last day on the front. Was it his family he thought of as chlorine gas clouded his airway and he lost consciousness? Or was it the city he knows in his heart to be waiting for him on the other side of the world? Darkness has entered his heart, and soon he’ll enter it.

The Lost City of Z
directed by James Gray
now playing, Lagoon Cinema